by Julie Ann Larry
From factory workers and stenographers to electricians and developers, triple-decker buildings transformed the way Portland families lived at the turn of the 20th century.
Now, many of the remaining triple-deckers are being rediscovered as attractive housing options. What is the history of this distinctly urban architecture in Portland?
The triple or three-decker is found in every major New England city, including Portland. Historically home to working class families, many of Portland’s triple deckers are being converted to high-end condominiums, especially on Munjoy Hill. Portland used to have more examples of this dwelling type, but many were targets for demolition during 1960s and 1970s Urban Renewal projects in Bayside, the West End, and Munjoy Hill.
The building form is generally three stories high with one family unit on each floor, usually with a rear porch. As one of the most popular housing forms for high-density urban neighborhoods in the beginning of the 20th century, the triple-decker accommodated growing immigrant communities. It was also a popular housing type as it provided a means of affordable ownership for working class families with its two units of supplemental rental income.
In Portland the housing type grew out of earlier examples that appeared following the Great Fire of 1866. This disaster left 10,000 Portlanders homeless and sparked a residential building boom in the city. Early influences can be found throughout the city, but the India Street neighborhood has several good examples.
Many early examples of Portland's triple-deckers were lost during the slum clearances of the 1960s. 19-21 Vine Street, built around 1875, Image MMN No. 82198 is a very early example of a three stacked dwelling. A slightly later example built c1884 was just up the street at 29-31 Vine Street. Image MMN No. 85504
An early influence is known as the mansard prototype. A mansard roof is a roof type with two pitches, with the lower roof being steeply pitched and often punctuated by dormer windows. In 1876 the dwelling at 169 Newbury Street Maine Image Memory Network No. 65319 (demolished 2016 ) was constructed for Wilbert Orville Pitcher, a peddler in Portland who later operated a stationary store. While the three-story Mansard roof building resembled a single family home, it actually accommodated the Pitcher family as well as two others, with one unit on each floor and a third unit in the attic story. Because Mansard roof dwellings have nearly vertical walls, the attic story was only minimally smaller than the units below.
A few years later, Franklin Simonds, owner of a dye house on India Street, built a six-unit double house at 78-82 India Street that was occupied by members of his family who worked across the street at his dyeing business. This type of building is known as the bracketed prototype. The three-story brick building has a pair of three-story projecting bay windows similar to a triple-decker. It also features a hip roof that appears flat from the street and a projecting cornice supported by brackets.
A wood example of this three-story double house form was built nearby at 56-58 Federal Street. Like the India Street building, it has a paired double entrance and three-story high projecting bay windows. However, it has a flat roof, typical of the triple-decker form. Although covered with vinyl siding it remains similar to its appearance documented in the 1924 tax photo. In particular, it confirms that its projecting roofline never had supporting brackets or any intricate detail work.
Munjoy Hill’s triple-deckers emerged from these earlier forms to become standalone three-family dwellings. One street largely defined by its row of triple-deckers is Vesper Street. The land on Vesper Street wasn’t developed until the late 1880s after being owned for many years by the Deering family. Development of the land was in part triggered by the electrification and expansion of the street railway system along Congress Street, down Morning Street, and then up Beckett and Munjoy Streets back to Congress Street.
Enoch Richards, a prolific builder on Munjoy Hill, built five triple-deckers on the west side of Vesper Street 1896-1899 as well as houses on Beckett Street and the Eastern Promenade. Richards was responsible for the construction of 80 Vesper Street in 1896-7, 82 Vesper Street in 1896, 88 Vesper Street in 1897-98, 92 Vesper Street in 1899 and 96 Vesper Street in 1899. Richards’ Vesper Street triple-deckers at 88-96 are characterized by deep projecting rooflines, supported by large end brackets, that encompass the three-story bay below.
The Richards family lived on the Hill, but moved often as Enoch built and sold homes. In a twenty-year period from 1889-1908, city directories list the Richards family residence as 91 Beckett Street, 147 Spring Street, 160 Eastern Prom, and 40 Emerson Street, a triple-decker with an unusual projecting bay above the entry door.
Richards was born in Searsmont, Maine but moved to Portland in his teens with his family. He and his wife had five children. His son Grover was an electrical contractor who likely worked with his father on his building projects. His daughter, Blanche, married Frederick Wheeler Hinckley, a Portland lawyer, politician and amateur architect. The young couple lived with her parents before moving to Sawyer Street in South Portland. Frederick, who served as South Portland’s mayor and served in the Maine Legislature, developed real estate like his father-in-law, designing and building the Sylvan Site development in South Portland.
Enoch Richards was also responsible for the construction of the triple-decker at 45 Quebec Street MMN No. 71561 sometime around 1899-1904. It is an example of the Early Classic Period style of triple-decker characterized by the application of Colonial Revival details. This triple-decker, like those Enoch Richards built on Vesper Street, has a deeply projecting roof that encompasses the three-story bay window and is supported by large end brackets. First purchased in 1904 from Enoch Richards by the widow, Harriet E. Sparrow, the dwelling was owned for ninety years by members of her family. Her son Clarence, a letter carrier for the post office, lived in one of the other units with his family and was given the house by his mother in 1917. The couple later lived at 43 Quebec Street and rented out the three unit building next door. Clarence’s daughters then inherited both dwellings on Quebec Street. His daughter Ethel, a stenographer, lived with her husband nearby on Emerson Street in the 1920s-1930s. The triple-decker was then inherited by Ethel’s daughter Eleanor Nichols Lincoln whose estate sold it in 1994.
Some unusual examples of triple- deckers on Munjoy Hill:
One of the most ornate triple-deckers on Munjoy Hill is located at 101 North Street. It was built in 1887 by Moses Gould, a prominent real estate developer who lived at 79 North Street. A similar triple-decker that has been somewhat altered is located at 98 Cumberland Avenue, near the Hill’s only four-decker at 106 Cumberland Avenue and a brick triple-decker at 102 Cumberland Avenue.
The triple decker at 82 Beckett Street is a good example of a shingled bay style with a bracketed cornice with Italianate details. Particularly striking is its unusual curved brackets at the entry door. It was built in 1891 by Charles W. Cushing, a carpenter who lived behind the triple-decker at 87 Munjoy Street.
The Colonial Revival triple-decker at 129 Morning Street has a curved three-story bay, which is unusual on Munjoy Hill where most bays are segmented. The dwelling was built in 1908 for Edward L. Dame, who also owned the more traditional triple-decker next door at 125 Morning Street.
For more information on the triple decker building form, one of the best histories of triple-deckers is Three-deckers of Dorchester: an Architectural Historical Survey by Arthur J. Krim, published in 1977 by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and available online courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Boston at https://archive.org/details/threedeckersofdo00krim
Historic Images from Maine Memory Network.